Over the coming weeks, I will be producing a single or multi-part essay tentative entitled John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property.
The blog where this resides, Jim's Eclectic World, is the written product of my work in philosophy, my love for Yellowstone, and my work as an anti-authoritarian/anarchist activist and organizer. In the upcoming essay(s), I hope to fuse all three influences into the single work.
Recently, I've written a lot about class issues in Yellowstone as well as capitalism and privatization. However, I haven't in any of these essays gone to any of the ideological roots behind the problem. A recent report by the Dallas private property-friendly think tank, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), has claimed that private property ownership is "the ultimate guarantor of individual liberty and prosperity." While not calling for outright privatization of Yellowstone due to practical realities, they certainly believe maximizing privatization of public lands is the best policy for preserving those lands. In my brief response, I noted that the differences between what I talked about for instance in criticizing the company town mentality of private interests in Greater Yellowstone and the NCPA report were so fundamental that nothing short of a critique on a right to private property would do.
NCPA cites philosophers like Aristotle and John Locke as recognizing the importance of private property to liberty. Indeed, it is John Locke in 1690, in Chapter V of The Second Treatise on Civil Government, who makes the most famous rationale for property rights. In order to understand and defend an anti-classist, anti-hierarchical stance toward society, it is especially necessary to understand property, why a right to property is contradictory to an anti-classist, anti-hierarchical activism, and also why there is no such thing as a right to property. The most charitable interpretation of John Locke's defense of property must be confronted and refuted as part of that defense.
Yellowstone National Park is a political boundary that exists in its current form in large part from the influence of philosophers like Locke. The very rationale for its existence depended a great deal on acceptance of the bulk of Locke's philosophy on property. Unfortunately, this is a fact that is not greatly appreciated, and therefore many of the defenses against private intrusion are contradictory. For instance, one strategy of conservationists in Greater Yellowstone is to convince people that tourism is better for the private interests of the residents of the area than is hunting, ranching, or resource extraction. Unfortunately, the rights of private interests are still assumed to be the determining value from which to make the case. And, just as unfortunately, we have seen some of the consequences that have arisen from promoting private interests at the expense of common interests. I have pointed to some of the consequences in recent essays.
Many people like to believe that the issues related to Yellowstone are simply issues of science versus politics. The good guys are the ones who use science; the bad ones are the ones who use politics and ideology. Yet, science does not answer every question, certainly not questions related to the basic values that our science serves (see for instance my critique of Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone). Those questions are ethical questions and go to the fundamentals of our understanding of reality itself. If we want to know how to be activists and organizers in Yellowstone, we need to understand what it is we are doing and why it is we are doing it. You cannot divorce the active pragmatic questions from the theoretical and ideological questions related to our values. Since those values are often in conflict, we had either have a way of sorting through the conflict or we might as well give up the quest to do better.
Thus, what I propose to write, which may serve as the basis some day for a book, is to focus on John Locke and on his defense of property rights, to show how that philosophy is directly relevant to what Yellowstone was and is now, and then to refute it. A refutation does not equate to a defense of some other position, necessarily, but it sets the ground for it.
Of course, by taking on Locke, the refutation will have applications far outside of Yellowstone, of course. It applies to so many places, and I will not hesitate to make those connections and acknowledge those implications where they become relevant to my life. However, for me, the practical and concrete embodiment of my not so distant future activism and organizing shall be in Greater Yellowstone, whether among the homeless of Jackson, Wyoming, with the buffalo of Yellowstone and throughout the United States, or with the delicate thermophiles who are seen more and more only for their instrumental value for human society. That is why I focus on Yellowstone; it's the nexus of my eclectic world.
In the coming weeks and months, as other writings come in, look for this one. For now, I would appreciate your help and input, no matter what you happen to believe. As little use as I've ever had for John Locke's philosophy, it is no small thing to consider the thought of someone as careful and as intelligent as Mr. Locke. We must be charitable, and doing so requires a fair amount of stamina as well as patience. We must try to understand what it was about Locke's thought that is so tempting that it has had the influence it continues to have. It may seem to take us far afield from the vistas of the Hayden or the Lamar Valley, the shooting stars and moonlight over Yellowstone Lake, the sublime beauty of the Upper and Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the delicate beauty of Heart Spring, and the fields of elk and bison laying along the Madison River every spring. In fact, we are far afield from it, but we pretend that we experience these things without any thought that we are succumbing to Mr. Locke's influence. Many of you may not have heard of John Locke; it will be in some ways sad to educate because the myth that Yellowstone is a mere wilderness is truly delightful. However, on top of that myth is a great deal of sadness, destruction, and genocide. The NCPA report proves that the thinking behind that is still alive and well and still deeply influential on what might happen in Yellowstone. If I am right, we must understand it, and then we must act on that knowledge accordingly.